Florida lawmakers consider expanding police drone use

The proposal also comes amid a flock of bills aiming to shape law enforcement in Florida.

click to enlarge Florida lawmakers consider expanding police drone use
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Drones may become a regular tool in law enforcement’s toolbox under a new proposal by Republican Sen. Tom Wright

Florida state law permits police to use drones under limited circumstances. According to statute, use is restricted to search warrants, prisoner escapes and “imminent loss of life” situations.  

Wright’s proposal, however, would expand usage.

The measure, SB 44, would broaden police powers to include traffic management and evidence collection. 

Fire departments could also utilize drones to survey fire, flood and natural disaster damage under the proposal.

“It may be able to see something that you can’t see from the ground,” Wright said during a February committee hearing. “That might protect them and save their lives.”

Proponents contend drones are safer, faster and more efficient than manned helicopters. 

For example, Wright told Florida Politics that the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office owns 33 drones.

Those drones, he said, are located within patrol vehicles throughout the county.

“When something goes down, a trunk can be popped and that drone can be deployed literally within a matter of a minute or two,” Wright said. “Whereas a helicopter… you’re looking at probably a response time of anywhere between 18 to 20 minutes before that piece of equipment is actually airborne.” 

While Wright’s proposal marks a small, yet sizable step in the relationship between law enforcement and drone technology in Florida, the Volusia County lawmaker hopes police will soon enjoy even broader use. 

Wright suggested authorities could use drones as a safe alternative to high-speed vehicle pursuits in the future.

Notably, Wright’s original proposal first tried to allow law enforcement to monitor crowds larger than 50 people with drone technology. 

An amendment filed during the committee process, however, removed the provision.

Critics often express privacy concerns over law enforcement’s use of drones.

Speaking to Florida Politics, the Florida ACLU fears the legislation may create a slippery slope for civil rights.

“We have concerns regarding the unnecessary, significant risk to privacy and civil rights and civil liberties that this may open the door to,” said Kara Gross, the Florida ACLU’s legislative director.

Gross and the Florida ACLU said they take issue with the bill’s broad language surrounding evidence collection and crime scenes. 

Moreover, Gross warned the legislation would “abolish” Florida’s warrant requirements for drones. 

“They’re no guard rails,” Gross said. “They’re no safeguards. It allows unfettered discretion for law enforcement to use drone technology to collect evidence.”

Wright’s proposal comes after a nationwide wave of summer protests in 2020, spurred by the death of George Floyd

The proposal also comes amid a flock of bills aiming to shape law enforcement in Florida.

In February, the Florida Legislative Black Caucus unveiled a sweeping police reform package, marking the group’s most ambitious effort yet to “reimagine” policing practices.

The package seeks to “promote fair and just policing reforms” by addressing issues including no-knock warrants, police militarization and more. 

Alternatively, Florida Republicans are championing a proposal, HB 1, that would stiffen penalties against violent rioters and pre-empt localities from slashing law enforcement budgets.

The varying proposals underscore the Legislature’s tug-of-war over law enforcement ahead of the 2021 Legislative Session. 

Meanwhile, other drone-related bills (SB 518/HB 433) will be heard this Session.

Filed by Hialeah Republican Sen. Manny Díaz and Pensacola Republican Rep. Alex Andrade, the proposals would allow state and local governments to use drones to assess damage after natural disasters.

The 2021 Legislative Session begins Tuesday.

This article first appeared at Florida Politics

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